OB Playhouse’s Earnest ‘Hair’: That’s the Spirit!

In 1968, western San Diego’s Ocean Beach area was the scene of a disturbance now known as the Labor Day Riot. Published reports reflect that the instigators weren’t itching about anything in particular; a bunch of kids at the end of Long Branch Avenue had taken to that most lethal of devices — the water balloon — in venting some early fall frustration before the cops moved in and spoiled everything.

But the tenor of the times soon branded OB an insurrectionist community (the OB Rag correctly called it San Diego’s Haight-Ashbury). Newsworthy episodes, like the successful 1970 effort to stare down proponents of a neighborhood jetty plan and the Collier Park antiwar riot the year after, would clearly bear out the descriptors.

The moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter is aligned with Mars. You know this because OB Playhouse is staging astrology’s signature play.

Fifty years later, and in comportment if not in numbers, OB’s lefty sensibilities are intact (I know, because I used to live there and would move back in a second if logistics permitted). That’s what makes OB Playhouse & Theatre Co.’s current Hair: The American Tribal-Love Rock Musical such an opportune entry. Better yet, it marks the Playhouse an itinerant steward of the OB vogue.

The irreverent Avenue Q and the sober Jesus Christ Superstar are among its recent entries; it also presumes to mount Reefer Madness next month and The Rocky Horror Show this fall.

See the pattern? The more things change . . .

Oh. This piece? It’s actually not half bad amid the original’s two 1969 Tony Award nominations and a 2009 Tony win as Best Revival — but that’s considering the underwritten story and an obsession with songcraft that often forces the plot back onto itself. Claude Hooper Bukowski, de facto leader of a bustin’-out-all-over New York hippie tribe, has to choose between his better angels in dodging the draft and his insistent parents (let alone the rest of the American right) in reporting for duty in Vietnam.

Move along, folks. (Almost) nothing to see here.

You’ll have to go if you want to know how it turns out — in either event, the Gerome Ragni/James Rado script doesn’t depict the war critics’ exasperation so much as stencil it.

The show’s acclaimed nude scene doesn’t necessarily fuel the plot points. Truth be told, it probably didn’t do that much beyond the media frenzy it caused in 1968, when the show opened on Broadway. Although it’s perfectly appropriate, it’s dimly lit and lasts all of 20 or 30 seconds.

Move along, folks. (Almost) nothing to see here.

It’s the spirit of the ‘60s that makes this piece, and director/choreographer Jennie Gray Connard has captured it well amid the personnel’s limited fund of knowledge (when the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, no one in this cast was even a forethought). The 15 characters are of one antiwar mind as they sweep the stage and aisles — but that strength in numbers, Connard seems to say, is merely another expression of anger and fear for the country, clearly apparent in the choral tunes.

The 38 songs don’t necessarily require topnotch voices amid Kirk Valles’ compliant music direction, but there are some here. Christopher Chiles’ vocals as Claude are histrionically excellent (“Manchester, England”); Justin Tuazon and Krista Feallock, Claude’s roommates George Berger and Sheila Franklin, follow suit even as their domestic lives could stand a boost (Sheila’s “Easy to Be Hard”). Rachel Throesch’s Crissy is sweetly introspective in her ballad “Frank Mills,” while the tribe turns an arresting “Walking in Space” (my favorite from composer Galt MacDermot’s original soundtrack).

Playwrights Gerome Ragni and James Rado couldn’t have forecast the public reaction to their equally public Vietnam protest.

The good group numbers “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In” adorn either side of the piece, enduring tributes to an absolutely mindless opprobrium that cost 58,000 American lives in the face of an unwinnable war.

Eight or ten years ago, the idea of theater in OB took modest hold amid the prior success of The Wild Parrot Players, an itinerant neighborhood group that staged One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to sellout acclaim around the year 2000. A colleague remarked that the plan might work if you staged the shows at the beach and served free beer. I thought her assessment a tad harsh; OB’s been around the block more than once, and its reputation as an unapologetic leftist stronghold is unvarnished and hard-won.

OB Playhouse, under the direction of Connard and her husband Bill, seems to get the idea. The couple’s 2016 takeover of the Newport Avenue venue has yielded a clutch of shows that fit the neighborhood like three gloves, their irreverence the hallmark of an Ocean Beach that knows exactly what it’s doing, thank you very much.

‘These kids today, with their rock hair and their long music.’

Hair may fall somewhat short in the prose department, but that’s not the Playhouse’s fault. For the time being, the latter appears to be erecting a performing arts testament to OB’s worldview, much like Circle Circle dot dot cultivates the local-area flavor or MOXIE Theatre seeks the feminist perspective or The Old Globe Theatre mounts spawns of spawns of spawns of spawns of shows with some link to William Shakespeare, its figurehead.

In so doing, it’s staged an entry loopy with the youth ethic that marked those grand and glorious days almost beyond recall. I’ll be 124 years old next February, so it’s a cinch I remember that aforementioned frenzy — the media had better things to do than flip on its butt over an antiwar musical, but it did anyway amid an enormously fractious period in American history, and theater (particularly in OB) is the better for it.

To quote an ancient assessment of the show by one of the inestimably finest theater critics the universe has ever known:

“These kids today, with their rock hair and their long music. I just don’t know. Wish to hell I did.”

This review is based on the matinee performance of June 3. Hair: The American Tribal-Love Rock Musical runs through July 1 at OB Playhouse, 4944 Newport Ave. in Ocean Beach. $28-$42. obtheatrecompany.com, (619) 795-9305.

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